What does it sound like?:
40 Years old today (3rd February)
In 1978, two bands from Northern Ireland produced their first singles and sent them to John Peel in the hope of getting Radio airplay.
One of them (The Undertones – Teenage Kicks) got played twice in a row and has passed into legend as John Peel’s favourite track of all time.
The other (Stiff Little Fingers – Suspect Device) was played every night for a week and Rough Trade (the only place in London to stock the single) was constantly running short of stock. Demand was so great, Geoff Travis approached the band so his label could re-release it and satisfy his customers.
A 50/50 Split Profit Deal was agreed with a handshake – no Contracts, no Lawyers, no future markets exploitation clause, just a straightforward Manufacturing and Distribution deal. Both had the desire to keep the arrangement simple – Stiff Little Fingers had already been disappointed by Island Records 6 months earlier (a tale told in the song “Rough Trade”, which is not about the label that released their records but about the label that signed them and then dropped them within a week, and signed The Jags instead)
“Alternative Ulster” was the next release on Rough Trade – the master tapes “obtained” from the Island Records sessions – and then a full album was suggested.
Neither the band or Rough Trade had ever done an album, but How Hard Can It Be?
Geoff Travis, Mayo Thompson and the band decamped to two terraced houses in Cambridge (aka Spaceward Studios) and recorded and mixed the album in 12 days.
Upon release it became the first independent album to make Top 20, and went on to sell 100,000 copies.
The album opens with an aural onslaught of the opening chords to “Suspect Device” and then in comes Jake Burns voice sounding like he’s been gargling glass.
And the energy and passion never drops across 12 tracks – most only just break 2 minutes, and the longest clocks in at 3 and a half minutes (due in no small part to the Doo-Wop vocal section in the middle of “Barbed Wire Love” (yes – a love song on a noisy, raggedy punk album).
Thematically it bounces between politics, police oppression, equality, empowerment, and general teenage boredom
And then there is the re-working of Bob Marley’s “Johnny Was”.
The Clash had punkified Reggae with “Police and Thieves” on their debut album – Stiff Little Fingers relocated Johnny to Belfast, added military drums, and strung the song out over 8 minutes (when played live, it is not unusual for the song to run for 11 or 12 minutes)
“Alternative Ulster” would/should be the perfect album closer.
Unfortunately one more track is added (“Closed Groove”) which (sadly) dents the overall perfection of this album.
What does it all *mean*?
4 decades on and it still sounds full of anger and hope for something better (“Grab it and change it, it’s yours”). And whilst the targets and causes may have changed, there is still relevance/resonance in their stance.
And without this album, Rough Trade would probably never have had the funds or confidence to build themselves into the market leading Indie label and give the world The Smiths
This is their definitive Punk statement. Punk as a thing, was pretty much over by 1979, and the band wanted to develop away from Punk thrash into a Post-Punk/Powerpop vein (perhaps a similar path trodden by Buzzcocks). Ufortunately whilst they had the tunes (and at this stage major label backing from Chrysalis), their original audience was not quite as prepared to move with them.
Yes there was relative success, but this was ever diminishing and they eventually split in 1982.
They reformed in 1987 and are still touring today. Their set list regularly includes 4 tracks from this album (“Suspect Device”, “Wasted Life”, “Johnny Was” and traditional set closer “Alternative Ulster”)
Goes well with…
The (un)holy trinity of Punk debut albums – Sex Pistols, Clash & The Damned.
They may not get the plaudits, re-appraisals or recognition of the Big 3, but this album is on a par with those accepted essential artefacts
Might suit people who like…
Anyone who believes in the power of Guitar and Drum